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By indirect means

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Why blog? To capture in writing some of the conversations and observations that occur on a day-to-day basis.  These ephemera (reasons to be cheerful, reasons to get exercised, not to mention some good laughs) evaporate all too quickly.  The purpose of this blog is to capture these evanescent moments before they are sucked away into the vortex of the past.

Field Donabate

Americanisms: the good, the bad and the ugly

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The good ones are indispensable, the bad ones are unloved and the unnecessary are just plain ugly.

Indispensible

What did we ever do without them?  I find myself taking rain checks sometimes.  Years ago I greeted this expression with bewilderment when it was used by an American friend from Chicago.  I had suggested that we might do something together and was confused when he started going on about rain and checques.  His explanation of the metaphor was that a rain check was originally a kind of voucher or credit note that they gave you at baseball matches if rain stopped play.  You could use the check to go to another match at another time.  Until then I suppose I must have said something flat and literal like, ‘we can always put it off for some other time’.  Every language has its unique words and expressions to capture the subtleties of lived experience in a wonderful way.  So, as Robert Macfarlane tells us, in Scots Gaelic there is an expression to describe the phenomenon of the ‘shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day’ rionnach maoim. [i]

Unloved

Why do I find myself saying that I need to ‘touch base’?  I have only the vaguest notion of what this sporting metaphor might mean.  Other unloved ones are those that have gone into the bank of global English.  For some reason, Russian and Polish people are particularly fond of ‘no problem’.  Sometimes  I hear myself uneasily saying ‘you’re welcome’ and wondering what I used to say before.  I think that when someone thanked me for something I would say ‘you’re grand’ or ‘it’s no bother’ or ‘it’s fine’.  There is something a  bit cold about ‘you’re welcome’ because it draws attention to its own generosity when it shouldn’t be doing so. The person thanks you for a favour or a kindness or a generous act that you have done and by replying ‘you’re welcome’ you are implying, ‘you owe me one’.  Il n’y a pas de quoi, as the French say.  The kindness is an ‘acte gratuit’.  You are not counting the cost.  I catch myself messaging friends and telling them  that I will call them later.  In a pre-Globish age I used to ‘ring’ or ‘phone’ people because ‘calling’ them meant hailing them by name, in the room or the street and not on the telephone.

Unnecessary

A personal bugbear of mine is, ‘Can I get a latte/cappuccino?’  To my ears the crudeness of the verb get sounds plain ignorant.  It’s telling the person who is serving you to give you the coffee.  Why not, as we used to say, ‘Could I have a latte/cappuccino please?’  Talking of coffee, who can stand those stupid aggrandizing names for sizes, ‘regular’, ‘tall’ and ‘grande’?  The signifier starts to blur into the signified to such an extent that my aversion to basins of weak dishwater drives me to request a ‘small’ Americano, or increasingly nowadays, to ask for a one shot espresso.  The flat white seems to have been invented by Australians to get around this problem.  It’s a lovely small cup of white coffee, the kind you got in Bewley’s cafe long ago.  Victor Segalen talks of the ‘extermination of words’ going hand in hand with the decline of Maori culture in the early twentieth century.  The ‘new way of speaking’ introduced by the ‘pale people’ means that the islanders cannot express themselves the way they used to do. [ii]

Conclusion?

We cannot control the great sea of language.  However, we can choose how and where we swim in it.  People talk of ‘sleep hygiene’.  Similarly we can practice linguistic hygiene; we can seek out beautiful species of expressions and avoid dreck and dross because we are free to mould and shape and add our bit to expression in English.  Awesome was never a very active part of my vocabulary, ossum even less so…  The ugly blandness of ossum is like a big dull watery Americano grande that blanks out so many gradations and distinctions of meaning between brilliant, great, fantastic, outstanding,  terrific, wild, bad, cool, wicked, legend, fab, groovy, amazing. The list goes on.

[i] See also Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words .

[ii] Victor Segalen, ‘Le nouveau parler’ in Les Immémoriaux, p. 27.

Unasked for advice

It’s usually very good advice if only one would follow it oneself!  As I was in the middle of suggesting to a friend that she should be walking more, using the trip to work as a way to build in fitness, by wearing runners to and from work and keeping a good pair of shoes in the office – why not stilettos while we’re at it! –   to change into at work, it occurred to me that this advice could be just as well applied to me.  Instead, I had done things all back to front and left a pair of walking shoes in the office, with the intention, aspiration as it turns out, of going for walks on the other campus along the avenues of old chestnut trees during some hypothetical free moment in the afternoons when I was weary of the desk and the computer.  Of course it would have made sense for me to organize things in the way I was advising my friend to do: to wear the walking shoes to and from work and to keep the formal shoes for the office.

Hypocrisy, or rather meanness to oneself

Why do we not ourselves follow the sensible advice we give our friends?  Is it out of some self-punitive harshness that we show well-meaning kindness to our friends but not to ourselves?  A tendency to shoot oneself  in the foot, quite literally in my case, as my toes are sore from trekking to and from work in formal shoes while my comfortable pair languishes unworn in a bag on a shelf in my office!

Toads

A friend and I were talking about what we would do if we could escape from work for a year: a year in Provence, a year in West Cork, a year in the Scottish Highlands.  We would probably end up doing some of the same things that we do at work, we concluded.  Other new work-like toads would pop up to spoil our year of freedom.  We would fall into the same thought patterns and habits that we engage in at work.  Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Toads’ is a sinuous riff on this idea.  He envies other people’s lifestyles but then pulls back.

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

The path not taken

In a similar way, we sometimes I find ourselves wondering what our lives would  have been like if we had chosen otherwise, for example, not studying humanities at university but going with the first plan of natural sciences, or not getting married, not living in one country but settling in the other one instead, or not having children.   I imagine a blue-stockinged me in a lab in a white coat, living somewhere in England. ‘Ah, the smell of formaldehyde in the mornings…’  But instead the woman in the white coat is wondering what things would be like if she had studied humanities.

These ‘what ifs’ are like the historical counter factuals that people like to toy with in their imagination: if the Nazis had managed to invade Britain they would all be talking German now; if Colombus had not discovered America there would be a confederation of Native American nations there instead.

No regrets

Wondering about the path not taken is purely an imaginative exercise, an interlude from where I am right now, for the simple reason that I am where and who I am by virtue of the paths not taken.  So we are the historians of our own lives looking back at the real causes and the real facts that came into play in decision making.  And now we can only go from where we are.  As people sometimes say, ‘if I had my life to live over again I would not have done anything differently’.   How we handle the counter factuals is interesting and and can vary from one person, one day, to another.  For some it is a choice between boring work and security on the one hand, versus dreams and the risk of starvation on the other.

Ah, were I courageous enough

                                To shout Stuff your pension!

                But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

                                That dreams are made on:

For another, the dreams can keep building up a head of steam, become bigger and bigger, so that work itself, along with the ambitions that went with it, comes to lose the importance that it once had.  The dreams lead to a new fork in the path and with these dreams come new responsibilities.  So we can say, some decisions I took in the past were risky but now I regret none of them.  They have brought me to where I am now.

The other day a letter came in the post from the Scottish Highlands.  I ripped it open, curious to see how my friend was getting on.  After all, what person on their deathbed has been heard to say, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office’?

Annoying work emails

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That reaction of mine yesterday morning was excessive, but now I’m old enough to let texts and emails lie for 24 hours, for 36 hours, for 48 hours or 72 hours depending on the weightiness of the matter in order to give myself time to respond to them slowly, if there even is a need tor respond to some of them at all, beyond sending a holding email along the lines of, ‘Dear X.  Thank you for your email.   If you wish to discuss this then perhaps we can meet, or talk over the telephone.  Kind regards.  Y’.

The ‘kind regards’ is workplace courtesy, a false smile of icy Saint-Simonian politeness*.  It’s sometimes necessary to remind work colleagues that they are just that.  They are not your little sister, your angry son, your emotionally cold mother.  The difficulty lies partly within us.  We have a compulsion or a duty to respond.  In this wearing always-on age we feel or think that we have to answer the doorbell, telephone, text, email or message.  We think that others have the right to make demands on our time and energy, even when these demands are unreasonable or untimely.

My reactions of impatient anger, and of fight or flight, become amplified when the emails, phone calls and messages arrive in the evenings or at weekends.  Sometimes they are sent late on the eve of holidays or on Bank Holiday Mondays.  Is this a deliberate ploy on the part of the sender?  Perhaps this is reading too much into things as we search out meaning and intention behind acts that are simply behavioural, examples of incompetence or lack of consideration.  Of course, some of my annoyance is annoyance at myself for being annoyed and for having opened the email in the first place.  There is no rule that says that we have to answer these out-of-hours communications immediately, in the same way as there is no reason to get up out of bed if we are having a much-needed nap and the doorbell rings.  They can wait.

In this always-on age we have consequently invented ways of mitigating intrusive messages.  We need to do this to cushion our sanity, to preserve our autonomy, our own space, mental and psychological.  Hence the out-of-office email, the holding email, the incoming phone message quarantined in voicemail for 24 hours or longer.  We can screen and lurk and read the caller display and decide not to answer.  Sometimes, quite often in fact, the senders and callers go away and sort their problems out for themselves.

*http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k70363  for the Sainte-Beuve edition

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_de_Rouvroy,_duc_de_Saint-Simon for a biography and English translation of the memoirs

What’s another year?

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Doing something for the very first time

With youth there is a confusion (or is it simply a blurring of distinctions?) between the excitement of doing something for the very first time in your own life and the belief that your generation is the only one or the first one ever to be doing this.  For this reason song lyrics, from whatever decade you were young, become a haunting soundscape to that excitement and that embarking on adventure with your peers.

There is an extraordinary vividness about the first days, at school, at college, at work.  The autumn weather, thinking about the first books you encounter in the first days of college while waiting at bus stops, going for coffee or drinks or to parties with your new friends.  Every autumn brings that time back.

It’s not a dress rehearsal

As we grow older, cliché heaps upon annoying but truthful cliché: youth is a wonderful thing, it’s a pity it’s wasted on the young; life is short; it goes by in a blink; you don’t appreciate it at the time; our children are only loaned to us, ars longa, vita brevis

Time cyclical and linear

It used to be that Christmas, Hallowe’en, Easter, would slow the passage of time down to something cyclical and seasonal.  Old traditions, watching the bulbs push up at the beginning of February, local ones like ‘putting the summer on the door’ at the beginning of May, would momentarily halt the accelerating weirdnesses of modern day life, the compulsive checking and rechecking of mobile phones, writing emails while answering the door or the telephone, worrying about young people sexting or getting caught up in bubbles of unreality; all the rush would cease when these old traditions would butt in reminding you to come back to earth, to connect with the changing light and vegetation, to accept life cycles along with all the other living and inanimate beings on the small planet.  The seasons were a truce from the relentless weekday commuting alternating with weekend recovery, from timetables, terms and deadlines and the obligation to earn a crust or to succeed.  But now, with late middle age there seems to be nothing new under the sun. Cyclical time comes around ever faster so that each Christmas blurs into the last one, or was it the one before.  ‘How’s work going?’, they ask. ‘Oh, same old, same old’, you reply.  Cyclical time is itself becoming linear, barrelling along and spiralling into a future that is coming up too fast.

Break out of stale habits

A nineteen year old gave me good advice last week: try to think of the things you want to do, rather than quantifying the passage of hours, days, weeks, years.   I resolve to break out of habits, do something new or different every day, learn something new every year.  Apparently time does get faster as you get older, according to psychologists (however they manage to measure this, maybe it’s something to do with the automatic pilot of learned behaviour).  It is a good thing that I cannot end this reflection, that there is still time to do some things anew.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from

T. S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’

 

Joined-up thinking

morgan-stanley-75-billion-devices-will-be-connected-to-the-internet-of-things-by-2020 Yesterday, a person in our household could not find his laptop charger.  An hour of searching, under bedclothes,  in bags, under piles of newspapers, led us to conclude that the charger must be somewhere in the house, but where?  This charger is unique to this laptop and no other charger would be any use.  A rapid inventory of the number of chargers in the house ensued: 3 laptop chargers (each one different); 5 or 6 mobile phone chargers + 2 or 3 tablet and player connectors of various types, not to mention chargers for digital cameras and other devices.   Maybe 24 in all?  Could this be? In a house of just three people who all pride themselves on trading in and removing old devices? Not one charger is compatible with another device.  It is as though we were living in Britain during the early days of the industrial revolution before bolts, nuts, cogs and gears were standardized, when each factory and mill made its own idiosyncratic machinery.

When you lose or mislay a charger, you have to go out and buy a new one.  Then you need two, because it’s useful to have one at work and one at home.  Manufacturers of technological devices have a vested interest in this happening because production and sales of chargers would decrease significantly if any charger could connect to any device. But here’s a thought for today: would it not make sense for chargers to connect to devices in a standardized way?

Epiphany

 

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Is there any activity that brings such lowness of heart as that of stripping the Christmas tree, dragging its dropping needles through the hall, stuffing it into the back of the car in order to drive it to the recycling centre?  I console myself that, once it is shredded, the tree will go back into the ecosystem as bark mulch, doing valuable work for the city council parks and public spaces.  It is a relief that here are no more chocolates left in the house; it is a good thing to be finding it so easy to abstain from alcohol and rich food after the weeks (I mean weeks) of excess.  However, despite the relief, the one word that sums up 6 January is ‘flat’.  My lowness of mood nearly leads to a row with the other half when I suggest that we give up the tree next year.  It’s time to forget the holidays and get back to porridge.

Yet another scenario also plays out.  I pause to look at the Peruvian ceramic crib figurines, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, the two shepherds, the ox and the ass.  Out of scale and out of style stand three plastic Playmobil kings, bearing their gifts and accompanied by their camel with all his travelling equipment.  This ought to be the day of exchanging gifts.  Instead many exhausted people have already taken down their decorations a week ago and the recycling centre has filled up with trees.  Christmas, giant retail Christmas, started in November, with bizarre new traditions that did not exist last year such as ‘Black Friday’ and ‘turning on the lights in the city centre’, a ploy to get droves of customers into the shops.  The January sales, an older tradition, no longer comfort as everything is in size XXL, everything is acrylic, everything is made in China.  In any case people are drained by shopping, spending and consuming so there is no energy left for sales.

The Playmobil Magi used to arrive on 6 January, having slowly made their way along the mantelpiece from Christmas Day (the real first day of Christmas), across the hearthrug and over to their final destination on the twelfth and last day.  Now they no longer set out for the crib because there is no child to make sure to move them along the mantelpiece day by day.  The baby Jesus who would wait hiding behind a photo frame until he was brought out on Christmas Eve, ready to be born the following morning, is now simply on a par with all the other decorations, to be taken out and put away again.  Our artisanal micro-traditions have been forgotten.  Life moves on, the younger generation have become young adults. They want to travel the world, live and work in other countries, become vegans.

For Coptic Christians, Christmas day is 6 January because they have kept the Julian calendar.  It is celebrated after 43 days of vegan fasting (nothing new about veganism!) so that the feasting really means something after weeks of restraint. It is strange to think that in another part of Dublin, not far away, a very different 6 January is taking place:

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/ireland-s-copts-all-set-to-celebrate-christmas-1.3346162

While in Australia and Egypt the festival acquires a deeper meaning for  people who have experienced the fear and sadness of terror attacks.

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/coptic-christians-celebrate-christmas-after-sadness-of-terror-attacks

Taking down the tree, that dreary annual chore, has forced a moment of reflection. There is a secret that the retailers, giant and small, (whose mission is growth, profit, consumption and waste) do not want us to know.  Flatness, restraint, not feasting, even sadness, all are necessary to the fabric of existence, being woven into the shared traditions that we create.  Without them there can be no excitement or joy.

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